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IP, Patent

More Google Acquisitions “Driven” By Patents — And Other Unanswered Questions

So late last year, I had a pretty good laugh over this “expert” opinion that Google’s interest in Groupon  was due to the latter’s patent portfolio. (See: Is Groupon’s Patent Really Worth More Than The Entire Nortel Portfolio?). Actually, my friend Jackie Hutter also had a laugh over this same article in her post Patent “Expert” Opinion on Reasons for Google Tender Offer for Groupon Reveals Fundamental Problems with IP Professionals.

Now I’m starting to think that there’s a PR machine out there that simply wants to make us all think that Google is interested in buying patents. Perhaps inspired by Google’s embarrassingly “weak” response to Oracle‘s aggressive infringement suit, someone is planting the idea that Google’s current purchasing decisions are patent driven, this time in reference to its purchase of eBook Technologies, Inc., with no real evidence whatsoever. (Don’t laugh at me for reading USA Today … the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was sold out). Recall that the “expert” in the Groupon article never mentioned a specific patent, while I was able to easily identify and link to the only known issued patent in Groupon’s portfolio (incidentally filed years before it first went into business).

The USA Today dispenses with calls to “experts” and simply tells us that “This acquisition is most likely about patents, personnel and technology, rather than hardware or software.” Ok, and why is that? Oh, because the eBook website used to say:

John is co-inventor and patent holder of a system to provide secure electronic book delivery. He is also a co-inventor of a patent-pending system to provide offline catalog shopping on an electronic book.

Garth is inventor or co-inventor of seven issued eBook patents; technologies include: cryptography and secure content distribution, eBook UI, resource/database dynamic conversion for cross-platform applications, and optimal paginated document presentation.

Of course, someone did do a little research, discovering that “some of these technologies were developed at their previous jobs at Gemstar-TV Guide and SoftBook Press.”  But that didn’t stop the ultimate conclusion that
“eBook Technologies has likely accumulated several different patents and proprietary technologies over the years. Google could only get them by acquiring the company.”

The thing is, had someone decided to dig a little deeper by, say, actually trying to find the patents, that someone might have discovered a far more interesting story. Looking for “eBook Technologies” in USPTO assignment records does, in fact, reveal a couple of patent applications (which, needless to say, are not patents). But more interesting than the fact that eBook is assigned ownership of these applications is noticing who else is an owner. Just take a look at the assignment history for one of the applications, and you’ll see that there are actually two owners. The inventors signed over the patents to both eBook Technologies and Firstpaper, LLC. Scroll to the bottom, and you’ll see that Firstpaper changed its name to Skiff, LLC. Presumably, that’s the Skiff, LLC that makes the largest and thinnest ebook reader. That would be the Skiff, LLC that was itself acquired by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation last year.

Does it strike anyone (other than me) as odd that Google would be so interested in acquiring a patent application that it would share with News Corp.? Also, given News Corp’s reported interest specifically in the IP rights, would they really have made a deal that didn’t include sole possession of the Skiff patents? And in that case, what, exactly, did Google acquire? Are Google and News Corp working together?

Unfortunately, USPTO assignment records are only as accurate as the patent owners want them to be, so unless News Corp or Google decides to record new assignments asserting ownership over the patents, most of us are just left to ask questions.



7 thoughts on “More Google Acquisitions “Driven” By Patents — And Other Unanswered Questions

  1. Great catch there. Hack journalists again rule the day, and allow patent attorneys to trumpet the supposed value of their services. As a former law partner used to say all the time: “We are the foxes guarding the hen house, so why do clients listen to us?” What I really like about this, is that companies or analysts who refuse to follow the pack and who look at the skepticism of insiders like us can develop different insights that can lead them to value creation opportunities that others miss because they are listening to the regular advice of “Google’s got patents, you need them too.” Reminds me some of the folks in Michael Lewis’ “The Big Short” who bucked the trends leading up to the Mortgage Meltdown, and made gazillions of $. They were crazy right?

    Posted by Jackie Hutter | January 17, 2011, 8:48 am
  2. Thanks for the comment, Jackie. Anyone with a little patience and $25 can get a copy of USPTO assignment records. It would be interesting to see what the inventors/eBook/Skiff agreement looks like.

    I might just do it myself, to satisfy my own curiosity … but I would expect that a prudent journalist would be interested in following up on this as well…

    Posted by Patrick | January 17, 2011, 3:47 pm


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